Living in the Ruins of Capitalism

The daughter of friends was telling me recently about the almost completed PhD thesis she is writing at UCLA’s History Department. It is, she explained, a gendered study of post-war Japanese photography and its connection to the development of that nation’s all-conquering camera industry. Coincident with the final touches to the last chapter of her study, will be the birth of her first child, due in July. We spoke at her baby shower. I talked of matsutake mushrooms (made flesh in The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 2015), she of Japanese camera manufacturer’s use of female models in their splashy advertisements featured in American magazines such as Life and National Geographic – media that somehow encapsulated the buoyant optimism of the post-war American era whilst its manufacturing base was, all the while, being fatally eroded by both its own hubristic triumphalism and the startling prowess of Japanese technology.

The subtext to our polite conversation, at this celebration of an impending birth was, I now reflect, the death of the Man/Nature dichotomy long underpinned by what Tsing characterizes as “the moral intentionality of Man’s Christian masculinity”. Liberated from these strictures, the PhD candidate has the opportunity to write a gendered history and I to read (and recommend) a book written by an academic who, using tales of the global supply chain of the matsutake mushroom, touches all the pulse points of inter-species entanglement (thus negating the notion of Nature as a neutral background against which Man struts his stuff) which currently inform an influential subset of ideas about the possibilities for survival in our highly damaged world.

Tsing writes that “progress stories have blinded us”. As Aidan O’Brien ventured recently in CounterPunch, none are more purblind than the Japanese – living out the death throes of a capitalism deep in the shadow of both its own Imperial history and of the American Empire. O’Brien suggests that contemporary Japan presages the bleak netherworld the West can expect as it moves ever closer toward the dead end of hyper-capitalism. Left unsaid is that the incipient death of the globalized progress-driven financial system will not undo its long-standing vampiric leaching of Japan’s (and the world’s) environmental life-blood: its poisoning of the land and its fouling of the atmosphere.

Japan adopted the western ethos of progress with the restoration of the Meiji dynasty in 1868, lurched headlong into industrialization and then into the imperialist adventures that culminated in the Pacific War – horrifically and gratuitously ended by the U.S. atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Post-war recovery was chaperoned by the United States. O’Brien writes, “As Japan’s US guardian descended into CIA madness – Japan’s rationality seemingly blossomed. The success of its “jobs-for-life” social model and it’s “just in time” production model, persuaded the world to put Japan on a pedestal”. Yet the nation saw its resurgent economy fall into permanent recession in the late twentieth century and, as an eerie counterpoint to its earlier experience of atomic destruction, suffer the environmental catastrophe of Fukushima in 2011. Tsing offers a salutary riposte in the subtitle to her book, On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

New protectionist trade policies and heinous enforcement of inhuman immigration laws within a newly fashioned Fortress America (where an ever-expanding gulf between the rich and the poor eats away at the social fabric) together with the seemingly permanent deflation of Japan’s once booming domestic economy point to the slow and painful collapse of these erstwhile liberal democracies, each having foundered on the systemic viciousness of global hyper-capitalism. In Europe, Britain’s post-war experiment with an enlightened social democracy, although always starved of funds (the country deliberately emasculated financially by the U.S. insistence on full repayment for the materiel it had supplied to its ally) and having suffered immense infrastructural damage from German bombing campaigns, nevertheless experienced thirty years of income growth and a robust social safety-net during an era the French call the Trente Glorieuses. Adoption of a steroidal neoliberal agenda by Thatcher in the 1980’s now sees these storied islands beleaguered and squabbling over the Brexit decision (born, like Trump’s electoral triumph, of entrenched race, class and regional wealth disparities) with its exit from Europe still to be negotiated.  Like Japan and the United States, it is living out the demise of its once secure place, founded on a sustainable balance of production and consumption, in the global market place.

All this occurs against a background of a damaged world in which other species struggle for their survival or are rendered extinct in the diminishing interstices carelessly left by the roiling tides of homo economicus liberali. Logging, fossil fuel extraction, mining, industrial agriculture, industrial and manufacturing installations and their associated destruction of habitat together with the sprawl of residential development and its trade, transportation, recreation and institutional infrastructures, are all in the process of narrowing the pathways towards species sustainability. “How much chance”, Tsing asks, “do we have for passing a habitable environment to our multispecies descendants?”

Yet, it is in such ruination that Tsing finds the matsutake mushroom flourishing and its pickers, bundlers (middlemen who buy the mushrooms from individual pickers), traders and retail sellers flourishing alongside their foraged crop in complex webs of symbiosis that exist both outside of such devastation and entirely dependent on it. She traces the mushroom across the globe –  in abandoned forests located in Europe, the United States, China and in its primary market Japan; and, in exploring the supply chain of this commodity over three continents she finds that matsutake “illuminate the cracks in the global political economy”.

The first written record of matsutake occurs in Japan in the eighth century and it was by then common around the ancient centers of Nara and Kyoto, where they flourished in forests of red pine – second growth woodlands that had colonized areas where the prized species of hinoki, sugi (Japanese cedar) and oak had long been logged for building and as fuel for iron forges. Matsutake became a treasured gift item much appreciated by Japan’s aristocracy and subsequently by the burgeoning merchant class. By the 1970s, however, it had become rare as the, by then, endemic pine forests which nurtured the fungus were no longer cared for by peasants in traditional systems of rice agriculture and woodlands known as satoyama, because subsistence farmers were increasingly choosing to move to the cities. Broadleaf trees began to re-emerge in these abandoned woodlands and shade out the pines, the roots of which had hitherto nurtured the matsutake. Thus was born the global export trade which emerged to satisfy the continued demand.

In the ruined industrial forests of Oregon, matsutake have thrived and it is here the author spends time with Southeast Asians who have recreated the hill camps of Laos and Cambodia beneath lodgepole and ponderosa pines on the slopes of the Eastern Cascades. Oregon’s logging industry was put out of business in the late twentieth century by the clear-cutting of tropical timbers in Southeast Asia, sponsored by Japanese trading companies and enforced by local military squads (with or without their government’s backing), which resulted in a dramatic fall in global lumber prices. Logging in the Pacific Northwest has never recovered and now the prolific lodgepoles crowd in on one another in a situation exacerbated by the Forest Service’s policy of fire exclusion – conditions that favor fungal symbiosis.  Quantities of matsutake, the sapid mushroom, whose smell for the Japanese is highly redolent of autumn, have replaced the board-feet metric in the state’s erstwhile industrial forests. Now the mushrooms are picked, as often as not, by refugees of countries torn asunder, not so long ago, by the American Empire in full anti-communist cry.

Opportunistic mycorrhizal organisms and the people that pick their fruits exist in vibrant worlds of their own making within larger landscapes of environmental decay, species extinction and the slow death of modernity – in which was spawned (and which continues to nourish) the idea of America, hyper-capitalism and the global economy. Yet Tsing has found, in the pine-duff beneath which the mushrooms lurk, and within her fundamentally dystopian vision, cause to be sanguine. She documents one way in which communities spread across the northern hemisphere have found a way to prosper in the ruins of capitalism. She has discovered, in the matsutake, reason to hope. The PhD candidate’s decision to have a child, likely to live long into the twenty-first century, indicates similar levels of optimism.

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at